Thursday, December 28, 2017

Talking Shop


Op-ed • “The View from the Field,” by Eric Dontigney •

I’m a writer.

That is one of the loneliest sentences in the world, for a host of reasons. Tell someone you’re a doctor or an accountant, they get a decent picture of what you do. The details might be wrong, but the gist is accurate. Tell someone you’re a writer and it evokes images of Hemingway in Paris or that pale, creepy guy hunched over a laptop at Starbucks. Cue the explanation that almost no professional writer fits those stereotypes.

Paris? Hell, Starbucks is out of the price range of many working writers. The median salary for journalists is around $40K a year, assuming you can get the job. Copywriters do a little better. Fiction writers? Ha! The average novel advance runs between $5K and $15K before taxes. Short stories? 6 cents a word is the professional pay rate. Of course, you must write the novels and short stories first. Then try to place them with magazines, agents or publishers.

You do most of it alone. You write by yourself. You revise by yourself. You develop query letters by yourself. You get rejection letters by yourself. You’re probably poor while doing most of it, so you beg off social engagements that cost money. You beg off free events because you need to write. It’s a lonely, lonely business.

Hi, I’m Eric. I’m a writer, and I feel your pain.

I’ve been writing in the non-school assignment way for around 20 years. It’s been my main occupation for about 10 years. My passion is fiction writing, but the bulk of my income comes from ghostwriting blogs and articles. I’ve also written ad copy, white papers, and ebooks for clients. I self-published a few novels. I made many mistakes along the way. With luck, I can help you avoid the worst of them.

First things first, let’s talk about college. If you want to be a scientist, an engineer or a lawyer, you must go to college. If you want to be a writer, though, college is optional. Get a library card and subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and Popular Science. Pick up copies of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, King’s On Writing, and Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Spend four years soaking up everything those resources offer. Read every day. Write for two hours a day. Forget that adverbs exist.

You will become a better writer and save a lot of money.

While you’re doing all of that, join a writing group. You don’t like people? You hate social situations? Join a writing group anyway. Social contact supports your mental well-being, a notorious weak spot for writers. Exposure to other writers helps you identify and correct the flaws in your writing. It also forces you to develop a thick skin. That’s important and you’ll need it later.

Now, we come to the hard part. Did you just blink? Yeah, all of that other stuff was just the pre-game. You must submit your work to magazines or send query letters to agents and editors. You will get rejected over and over again. I know. I still have a folder somewhere stuffed with rejection letters.

Now, for the love of God, don’t do what I did. I’d reached the point where editors were sending personalized rejections to my short story submissions. For the record, that’s a good indication that you’re close to producing publishable work. I was too inexperienced and my ego too fragile to internalize that fact. I never developed that all-important thick skin. The rejections wore me down. I all but quit writing fiction for years. I went college. I racked up a staggering amount of debt.

Fast forward to after college. An aunt brought NaNoWriMo to my attention and I decided to give it a go. I wrote a book, or most of one, in 30 days. By some miracle, I wrote a novel that hung together on a plot level. The characters were, if not original, original enough. It was okay. Then, I made a bunch of mistakes.

What the book needed was about 5 more drafts and input from a genre-conscious writing group. It got none of that. I also never bothered to query agents about it. Nope, not this guy. I went straight to self-publishing. Blame it on a dysfunction cocktail of ego, fear of rejection, and raw impatience. I’d written a book. I wanted it out in the world where people could read it. The book wasn’t ready and I knew nothing about marketing. Predictably, family and typo-tolerant friends were my only readers.

I wrote two more books in the same world out of pure love for the characters. Both sequels are vast improvements on the first. Unfortunately, committing that first book to self-publishing condemned the sequels to the same fate. While some people make self-publishing work for them, it’s a hard road with lots of pitfalls. I suspect I fell into most of them.

Traditional publishing is no picnic to break into, either. The process is rife with rejection letters. Take it from a guy shopping a new novel around to agents. If you can break in, though, it gets you access to a support mechanism. You might not get a full spread ad in Publishers Weekly, but you also aren’t responsible for every last detail. You get professional feedback. Someone else handles cover art. Someone else turns that Word document into something Kindle-friendly. It becomes a team effort.

It makes saying, “I’m a writer,” a lot less lonely.



Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, and his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #20.



“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at


GuyStewart said...

It took me a long time to find writers I could relate to. Even belonging to SCBWI and SFWA, it STILL feels lonely. Plus my wife and kids have always been very supportive...

Even IS a lonely life we live...

~brb said...

It can be lonely, but...

In my previous incarnation, as a musician, I eventually realized that I *preferred" the loneliness of working in a recording studio to the insanity and exhaustion of touring and performing live. That's what I tell people was my breakthrough moment that made me change careers: when I realized that you don't have to rehearse and perform a story.

Eric Dontigney said...

Finding like-minded writers is difficult at times. Every writer can relate to the struggle to write the next Great American Novel. It takes a special breed to relate to your struggle to write the next Foundation Trilogy or Elric of Melnibone. Genre writing has its own special traps and pitfalls.

My sense of things is that many young writers lead introverted, isolated lives. It's part of why they become writers. I see writing groups as a good way to help offset some of the mental health consequences and get them some practical feedback.

As Bruce points out, though, there is such a thing as too much social interaction. I'm in that camp of people who find social situations beneficial and tiring. Sometimes, you really do just need some solitude.